Language Diary #2: Italian Crosstalk

Updates from the German+Italian road, with some thoughts on why crosstalk could be a better choice for beginners than traditional language exchange

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Welcome back to my language diary. Which is apparently biweekly now with posts appearing on either Wednesdays or Thursdays, depending on how I feel.

Yes I know bloggers are supposed to be reliable, but my whole “thing” is kinda chaos so forgive me this completely in-character 2 day buffer period.

Active languages: Italian (~A1-) and German (~B2+)

Languages on-hold: Spanish (~A1) and Danish (~A1-)

Italian - beginner (maaaybe A1?)

German - advanced (B2+)

  • Total time studied: ~2.75 years
  • Current focus streak: ~2.75 years
  • Learner resources: apps: Speakly 10 words/day; exchange: 1/wk exchange partner, Slowly penpals
  • Native content: audio: ORF (Austrian public radio); books: Drachenfeuer by Wolfgang Hohlbein; news/magazines: ORF.at, Der Standard; TV/movies: Roman Empire German dub, Servus.tv (Austrian TV my partner’s mom always has on); YouTube: whatever my partner is randomly watching

Crosstalk exchange, iTalki lessons, and discovering new great resources for Italian

Italian continues to be a joy — hearing it immediately brightens my mood right up. Even if I don’t end up reaching my goal of B2 in Italian, I’ll still be so happy to have spent some time with this language.

My learning “strategy” right now, if you could call it a strategy, is to use Speakly every morning for about 10-20 minutes (~10 new words/phrases per day) and then do whatever I feel like for an hour or two throughout the day.

Lately, “whatever I feel like doing” has mostly been doing Speakly’s listening exercises, working through the amazing graded reader/textbook hybrid l’Italiano Secondo il Metodo Natura, and watching Learning Italian with Lucrezia and Easy Italian on YouTube. I also occasionally skim a grammar textbook and dip my toes into native content whenever I’m in the mood to hit my head repeatedly against a wall — and let’s be honest, who doesn’t get that craving from time to time?

I also meet with an iTalki tutor once a week and she assigns me homework, which is usually reading short chapters in an A2-level graded reader (Amici Nemici) or listening to/watching something in comprehensible Italian.

My favorite Italian beginner resources so far

I’m at this delightful stage with Italian right now where everything is new and useful, and I’ve enjoyed exploring the numerous (and often free) beginner resources out there for this language. Here are my favorites right now:

  • l’Italiano Secondo il Metodo Natura the bizarre graded reader/textbook hybrid I never knew I needed. It’s basically a novel that starts out in sub-A1 super repetitive Italian and brings you up beyond B2, all without any English whatsoever. I read a chapter to myself out loud about every 2 days.
  • Speakly. After futzing around with Anki forever I finally switched to Speakly and love it. It’s a bit like Duolingo sans the cutsey characters and memeworthy useless sentences with a very thoughtful vocabulary set. I learn at least 10 “words” (unclear what Speakly counts as a word) a day and reached the 500 “words” mark today. Speakly also offers courses in Russian, German, Spanish, French, Finnish, and Estonian for English speakers.
  • Easy Italian. I love that this YouTube channel is almost entirely in Italian — there’s nothing I hate more than comprehensible input resources that switch to English all the time. They have a Super Easy Italian playlist that I’ve been using a lot.
  • Simple Italian Podcast. Slow, comprehensible Italian in podcast form? Interesting topics that aren’t just Italian culture? Yes please. I love to have some kind of comprehensible/slow audio running in the background when I’m doing chores or menial tasks, and this fills that niche in my Italian learning environment perfectly.

The last 2 weeks of German was basically just bingeing the dub of Roman Empire and sitting around in Austria 🇦🇹

Last month’s major win — convincing my partner to watch Netflix’s Dark with me in German — has snowballed into an even bigger win. He’s now watching German dubs with me all the time.

Clemens hates dubs, which is maybe one of the reasons his English is so fluent. But I think he’s realized that it might, you know, help me to learn his language if he’s willing to suffer through German dub acting from time to time. So we’re almost exclusively watching TV in German now, which last week meant bingeing through the German dub of Netflix’s Roman Empire. Victory!

It’s also been a lot easier to maintain German right now because we’re back in Austria for our wedding this week, so I’m using the language every day. Just kinda sitting around in the house and chit chatting with Clemens' mom while she cooks and listens to Austrian radio is a surprisingly effective learning strategy. My dialect is also getting a bit better being here.

Crosstalk vs language exchange for beginners

The biggest change to the way I’m learning Italian in the past two weeks was my decision to start meeting with an Italian exchange partner for crosstalk — I speak English to her and she responds in Italian for the entire exchange.

Crosstalk is something I only recently discovered through the Dreaming Spanish YouTube channel (Spanish, I’m coming for you eventually I swear) and it isn’t something I ever did with German. But thinking about it, it seems like a logical extension of my learning style, which relies heavily on comprehensible input. And crosstalk is basically interactive comprehensible input — comprehensible+ input?

Anyways, I’m absolutely loving crosstalk so far and wish I had started it with German at the very beginning. I highly recommend checking out this video from Dreaming Spanish (it has English subtitles). It explains crosstalk and its advantages and goes into how it plays nice with comprehensible input. And this video is just one video in a great playlist — all with English subs — introducing comprehensible input and how it can be used to start learning a new language.


Advantages of crosstalk

Crosstalk has all of the advantages of a traditional language exchange —increasing motivation, adding accountability to your learning, helping you make friends, etc. — with the exception of being an opportunity to practice speaking.

But in exchange for speaking practice, crosstalk provides three major advantages over traditional language exchange:

  1. You really can start crosstalk from day 1 — people are good at miming and it’s easier to figure out what people mean than it is to say something in their language. I can barely conjugate essere (to be) in the present tense in Italian but I can crosstalk for an hour without issues.
  2. Crosstalk can provide twice as much native input in your target language as traditional language exchange — If you crosstalk for 60 minutes and speak half the time, you get 30 minutes of input from your partner and spend 60 continuous minutes interacting with your target language. In a traditional language exchange, you trade input for output and spend less continuous time interacting with the language. In 60 minutes, you’d interact with your target language for 30 minutes and in that time you’d speak for 15 minutes and get 15 minutes of native speech from your partner.
  3. Crosstalk won’t lithify your bad language habits — Crosstalk doesn’t give you the chance to practice wrong. Exchange partners model correct speech for you, but they are not trained teachers who know how to correct your mistakes. Staying silent with German and learning by listening for a while helped me develop a good accent and didn’t give me a chance to practice bad habits that might otherwise have followed me from A1 to B2. (Note: This is a controversial view in the language learning community, many claim that speaking from day 1 is the way to go. I think a silent or mostly-silent period is helpful.)

Bonus advantage: crosstalk respects your language partner’s time when you’re a super-beginner who can’t say much more than “hi”

Unpopular opinion: It’s annoying to try language exchange with people who can barely speak your language at all. Upper-intermediate is where it gets fun, you can make mistakes together and laugh. Talking to someone who struggles to say more than “Hi I’m NAME from PLACE” for an hour is exhausting and no fun.

Crosstalk is less frustrating for your exchange partners when you’re not at a real speaking level yet. It allows you to talk about a wider variety of topics that’s more interesting to both you and your partner, and it lets you get to know each other faster and more personally.

When to start crosstalk and how to find a crosstalk partner

Crosstalk rocks — and unlike traditional exchange, I think beginners should start crosstalk as soon as they want to. Start on day 1 if you can. It’s incredibly motivating to use your target language as a communication medium even before you can speak it.

I think crosstalk could be especially helpful for people who struggle to focus on beginner resources or aren’t motivated by them. This is actually a point my Italian partner made during our last chat. She’s bored by textbooks and beginner resources like graded readers — and yeah, they’re mostly boring. But it’s hard to be bored when you’re talking to a real, breathing person. And it’s rude to not pay attention to them. The social pressure to be nice helps you stay focused and keep trying to understand, even when it’s difficult.

If you want to find a crosstalk partner, I recommend either paying $6 for a month of MyLanguageExchange.com’s gold membership (which allows you to send messages rather than just receive them) and sending off a dozen or so messages telling folks you’re looking for crosstalk. People tend to be serious about learning languages on that site, and once you’ve found a partner you won’t need the gold membership anymore.

If you’re looking for a free option and can’t find someone through your existing online network, both HelloTalk and Tandem are options to consider. I use HelloTalk to find partners, but be prepared to wade through a real swamp of unwanted flirty messages on either app. The only way I’ve had luck finding good partners is to directly message same-gender folks (or different-gender folks who clearly mention a partner in their bio) who list clear reasons why they’re learning your language in their profile.

Wherever you find partners, them clearly tell them what you’re looking for at the start and don’t mess around with “hi, how are you?” crap for very long. A good partner will be responsive and work with you quickly to find a time to chat via Skype/Zoom/etc. There are enough folks online these days that there’s no need to keep waiting on someone who isn’t respecting your time.

Up next: graded readers (probably)

I hope you enjoyed this little update and my quick thoughts on crosstalk. Next time I’m planning to write a bit about how I’ve been using graded readers as a beginner in Italian and how I did (and, really, didn’t) use them for German in the past.

Until then, let me know in the comments what you think about crosstalk. Have you given it a try? Do you prefer traditional language exchange, even as a beginner? And do you like to find language exchange partners?

Ciao!